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The French Can’t Spell
December 28, 2011 - By: - In: Language - 28 comments

Since my French spelling has always been exécrable, I was delighted to discover this week that the French can’t spell French either. Why not? Because the Académie française, defender of the French language, simplified the spelling. Which is big news in France these days, even though the spelling changes were mandated back in 1990. Dropping the circumflex on i and u were among many changes that affected the spelling of about one French word out of 500.

It seems surprising that these changes were ignored, since proper spelling in French is a big deal. Good spelling is an important marker of social status in France, where people read books and stuff.

Up until recently, it hadn’t been a problem, since everyone in France, including the Academie itself, had ignored the new spelling rules for years. Actually the new and old spellings are both acceptable, because the idea was that the new rules were supposed to be taught in schools, with the expectation that the new spellings would eventually replace the old.

Only hitch was that the teachers were not teaching the new spelling, because French textbook publishers were not changing the spellings in their text books. It was tough on the kids, since teachers and textbooks didn’t always agree.

But then Delphine Guichard, an elementary school teacher in the Loiret region, called on publishers of French textbooks to ensure correct spelling. “Spell checkers are up-to-date, and dictionaries are beginning to be, so why not textbooks?” she asked. Publishers have been reluctant to adopt the new system for fear of offending teachers who, like most, think the old spelling is fine. Guichard had to close the post to comments because of all the nasty remarks she was getting from readers presumably heavily larded with “î” and “û”.

For many self-appointed guardians of the language, the fact these changes came from the Academie is an act of betrayal. “The French depend on the Academie française to defend their language, and some seem to have taken its participation in and endorsement of the changes as an abrogation of duty. The body that proposed the rules — the Conseil superieur de la langue française — is presided over by the prime minister and takes direction from the president, an indication of how seriously the French take their language,” says Sarah DiLorenzo of AP.

In its nearly four centuries, the Academie has occasionally modified the spellings of words, including in its very first dictionary, which appeared in 1694.

But many take the Academie’s mission to “defend” French to mean that it should ensure the language never changes. Other francophone countries adopted the new spellings without much fuss years ago. But French in France is special, and preservation of the language is important, even if it means misspelling it.

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